A few things recently have made me wonder what exactly makes this thing we call “the web” what it is? What makes it useful? What makes it materially different from anything that has come before? The only observations I have come up with seem obvious–even banal–on their own. But put them together, and they produce this incredibly powerful…thing.
Content: A Book
Never before has such a wealth of information been available through a single access point. There is vastly more knowledge available elsewhere than there is on the internet (in libraries, newspaper archives, and on millions of people’s bookshelves), but you can’t get at it through a single wire, person, or contact point like you can with the internet.
Indexing: A Catalogue
Altavista, Google, Teoma…. There are others, and there will be more and better search engines in the future. But even now, the indexes of the web dwarf by manyorders of magnitude any previous attempt to condense and collate keywords and metadata.
Community: A Café
Content and indexes make for a great library, but people don’t hang out in libraries just for fun. Yet people have made the internet their homes–sometimes in a nearly literal sense. People have always come together in groups, and every form of technology that has allowed communication (letters, telegraph, telephone, ham radio) has fostered new communities. The community aspect was one of the earliest properties to emerge from electronic networks (email), and it has been in continuous evolution since then, through dial-up BBSs, on-line forums, chat boards and blogs.
Just as with Content and Indexing, there is very little that qualitatively distinguishes on-line communities from their real-life counterparts. It’s the quantity, ubiquity, and fluidity of their creation and make-up that makes the big difference.
Connectedness: An Address Book
Every web page can be connected to any other by a single step. This means that every piece of knowledge can be instantly referenced by every other, and every community is within shouting (whispering?) distance of every other. Connections and comparisons that were previously difficult or elaborate, now are suddenly simple. The power of a network increases with its size (Metcalfe’s Law), and also with the number of connections between its nodes.
Again, this networking effect has always been present in human communities: someone knows someone else, who knows someone or something else, and so the chain goes. But the speed and volume of connections on the internet is vastly greater.
Going by these observations, there is very little the web does that has not been done elsewhere. Yet I feel that the web is qualitatively different from all that has gone before. Paradoxically, though, it seems to be the quantitative differences that combine to make a qualitative difference.
Am I wrong here? Am I missing something? Is the “Internet” really something different at all? Please enlighten me with your comments!
(See also Part 2 of this article.